Film: Almost famousCameron Crowe went from the underrated director of “Jerry Maguire” whose contribution to this film was undeservedly overshadowed by one of the star, Tom Cruise – to the director whose name stands for quality. Not always deserved, though. I liked meticulous sense of detail in “Jerry Maguire”; it’s the first film to have a character hit a lantern hanging from the low ceiling with his head; this kind of thing happens to me all the time, even if I’m not of basketball-player height; Directors will never bother with this kind of small happenings that bear no relevance to the story but Crowe did and that gave the feel of a friendship between director and us, rising the film high above what it was advertised as. His earlier, “Singles”, stands as a manifest of a grunge generation, though not entirely deservedly. Then again, “Vanilla sky” was a confusing remake of a film that was very stupid to begin with.
Does it make a good director, when their career is consisted of altering between good and bad films? Does it make their name under the title a recommendation? My opinion is that it hasn’t got much with what percentage of their films is good, but rather with whether director approaches the film as a little piece of him that he decides to put on display, or as just another work that has to be walked through. There are many directors capable of directing a script to bring a decent film, but a film that could be directed by anyone – directors reliable for producers but never anything more than a craftsman (Joel Schumacher and James Cameron come to mind). On the other hand, there are directors whose films I’d keep watching simply because there is a chance that one day, when they put their thoughts together, they’ll make a masterpiece (Harmony Corinne, perhaps). Thus, there are lots of directors who I greatly respect even though their output is shifting from masterpiece to appallingly bad (Lynch, Ken Russell, Goddard, Pasolini, just to name a few). They are, as Truffaut would put it, authors.
So there’s Crowe’s “Almost famous”, film that I unfortunately haven’t seen before “Vanilla Sky”, but one thing it did, regained trust in that director for me. “Almost famous” is before all, mood piece, and if I want to describe what’s so good about that film, the only thing I can do it try to explain what mood we have in mind. It’s not a simple (or perhaps possible) thing to explain, which is what makes the whole achievement of the film.
We are talking about late 60ies and early 70ies, a particular period of recent history. Talking about age gap, there’s no generation in history that didn’t confront their parents and step out of known moral norms; Even ancient Greeks complained about how their children are lazy and disrespectful. But looking back at recent culture history, no generation made that gap wider than did the one that grew up in late 60ies and early 70ies. Pop culture and moral norms as we know them today, are mostly a product of that time. “Almost famous” is successfully capturing the mood of this time, the mood of big changes happening in front of our eyes, of opportunity to be witnessing or even directly involved in history. That’s the time when battles were won on concert stages and cinema projections, not on battlefields or election days. People were accepting new experiences with wide eyes, with significantly less fear of new experiences that we (with our AIDS and drug addictions and other moral panics) have today. It was a time when childlike curiousity and optimism were common belief. Consciously empty-headed chic of 80ies or cynicism and detachment of 90ies can hardly be compared with that.
That’s the mood that this film captures perfectly. And when we’re talking about something so subtle, there can be no attempt of making it an authentic, global-scale chronicle (such as “Great Rock-and-roll swindle” was for punk”) or self-aware meditation in which everyone talks like a philosopher, or anything that other directors would make of a period piece. Once upon a time, Borges became an acclaimed writer, among other things because he was able to bring great problems to common audience by rejecting symbolism and adopting allegory; by talking about people we can identify with, not about faceless symbols. At the dawn of 60ies, a film called “The Graduate” somehow captured fears and frustrations of the entire generation – and, in a way, of young man of every generation – by talking about one particular young in one particular place and time. “Almost famous” tells the story of a fictional rock group in the down of their career, allowing it to be any young rock group, or none. Mood is always built through details, not though the plot, and general ideas are best told with a particular case.
Heavily based on Crowe’s own youth, the film tells a story of a young rock-and-roll journalist William (convincingly played by Patrick Fugit) who, as 15 leas that he is 17 who is surprised by “Rolling stone” by being engaged to write a story about the new rising band “Stillwater”. Members of band easily adopt the young journalist and drag him along on their tour, convincing him to follow them much further than he initially intended. Their attitude alters from confessing to him, to treating him as an enemy, a member of enemy trade (critic vs. artists) and be no fool, older critic Lester Bangs who apprentices William gives him sound advices over the telephone when he most needs them. “You and I are not cool, no matter what they say to you. They need us to reassure themselves that they are cool”. With square haircut and childish look, clumsiness and restrain, William is more a proper audience to “Stillwater” gang in need of admiration, he’s the instrument of their rebellion and his acceptance in the gang consisting of group, technicians and groupies works as a manifest of the time itself. They like him, yes, but every time they say he’s cool, they are lying and they know it. But it’s the time of open horizons, even for an eloquent but introvert 15 years old who lies about his age.
Over the time piece, “Almost famous” is a story of a group of characters and complex relations between them. One of the most intriguing is the one between a singer Russel Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) and a guitarist Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee); When Russel compliments him on a press conference, Jeff replies “Why did you never say that to me before?” There is already a deeply rooted conflict between two friends, based on desperate grappling for attention. There is an unspoken bond between William and Russel, a mix of admiration, reservation and hate, until the end of the film, these two men are reluctant to facing each other, delaying the interview that needs to be done. Then there is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) who smiles from all promotional material of this film, a groupie who needs to convince herself that she isn’t just a groupie, burdened by inability of most people to see behind her pretty face, but then so dizzy with reflector lights that she chooses to carry that burden as proudly as she can. The most curious is the relationship built in just a few short encounters, between Russel and William’s conservative but permissive mother Elaine (played by brother Coen’s star, Francis mcDormand); They seem to be on edge of accomplishing the mother-son relationship, as he desperately needs maternal figure, and she desperately needs to play a maternal figure to everyone who needs it. Finally, a link between William and Lester Bangs, who feels that it’s best to break all his illusions before he gets hurt – but then again, maybe he’s wrong, maybe illusions need to have their place in boy’s life.
“Almost famous” avoids all wrong ways that it could’ve been led to. It has no pathos, it’s not unrealistically, romantically glorifying the age, it has no element of scandal, it doesn’t feed on drug or sex abuse as many films about that time would, it’s a perfect little piece that captures the moment and then replays it for us who weren’t so lucky to be in opportunity to feel it ourselves.